A religious test shouldn’t be used for public service, and it shouldn’t be used for public funding either! And thanks to President Trump’s string of announcements Thursday, Christians shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
If you tried to keep up with the burst of government regulations, it wasn’t easy. January 16 ended up being one of the busiest days for the president’s cabinet members, who were volleying out press releases as fast as the news wires would print them. By the end of Thursday, we knew that nine government agencies would be breaking new ground on First Amendment protections and mopping up major problems from their predecessors. By the time the sun went down, Americans had heard about new guidance on school prayer, forthcoming regulations protecting religious organizations, and a memo from the Office of Management and Budget giving additional teeth to these policy changes.
Of course, when the media wasn’t downplaying what the president had done, they made it difficult to understand what he had. So the White House team took turns on shows like “Washington Watch” to explain. Russ Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), had a front row seat for the changes and says conservatives — especially evangelicals — have a lot to be thankful for.
In his mind, one of the most significant moves was bringing the government in line with a key Supreme Court decision called Trinity Lutheran. Some of you might remember that case, where a church daycare had applied for money from a state program to rebuild the base of their playground. Missouri turned them down, insisting that they couldn’t use public dollars for any “church, section, or denomination of religion.” The justices disagreed, ruling that the government should treat kids at religious schools the same way they treat everyone else. That was an important decision, Russ explained, because the government’s been using this excuse for years for a lot more than Christian daycares. So, the president has insisted — rightly so — that it’s time to bring every agency in line with that Supreme Court decision.
“A lot of times, you’ll have a state that will receive a good chunk of money — and then they’ll [turn around and] provide funding to other grant recipients,” Vought said. “And it’s important that those religious organizations, where they’re competing, are not barred.” One of the guidances issued Thursday ensures “that agencies are speaking very clearly to all the states and subgrant recipients to make sure they have these policies in place. And here’s the issue,” he went on. “It’s often hard to get people moving in the right direction. But one of the things that will make people pay attention to these types of laws on the books is the fact that their funding is attached to it. And so we want to make sure that that is if they’re going to receive federal funding, religious organizations have the ability to compete for it…”
The president isn’t trying to give faith-based groups special treatment. He’s just asking that they’re treated like everybody else. Under President Obama, religious charities and nonprofits were punished just for having convictions. This policy, Russ believes, ought to have a big effect. It’s not just a feel-good announcement. It’s a rule that will actually make a difference in how churches and others are treated.
“And then the other thing that the administration has done in about nine different agencies, everyone from DOJ to HUD to HHS is to remove the Obama administration regulations that [put] red tape on religious organizations by saying, ‘Hey, if you’re coming into a religious organization, you’ve got to provide notice to the people coming through your doors that they can have an alternative provider — which is, quite frankly, offensive… Again, we don’t have any issue with secular providers. We just want to make sure that religious organizations can compete without the same red tape being put on them.”
Lastly — and probably the most covered change from Thursday — is the Trump guidance on school prayer. “Government,” the president insisted, “must never stand between the people and God.” And yet, he went on, “there’s a growing totalitarian impulse on the far Left that seeks to punish, restrict, and even prohibit religious expression… [W]e will not let anyone push God from the public square.” And to prove it, Trump unveiled what he calls his “right to pray” rule.
When it comes to school prayer, Gateways to Better Education’s Eric Buehrer told me, “We’re fighting a battle against people who are simply ignorant of what the law actually says. So the challenge is to get this information into the hands of teachers and administrators because they’re so afraid of being attacked for allowing something [like prayer]. But it is allowed.” This policy helps administrators and teachers understand what is and isn’t okay. And there’s a little incentive for schools to learn what’s legal under the guidance from the administration — because now it’s linked to federal funding. For once, these districts have to certify that they have no policy against prayer in schools. It’s not just “Oh, yeah. We allow it.” They have to prove it.
That’s significant, after a whole generation of young people grew up thinking that somehow public expression of your faith in the classroom — or really anywhere — is forbidden. “It’s no wonder they become adults who have that same thinking.” For too long, schools have played a role stigmatizing religion and the expression of faith. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done, there’s no denying: this is a big step.
Tony Perkins‘s Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.